The U.S. Economy Does Not Value Caregivers

Providers of physical and spiritual care are just as indispensable to our society as providers of income. So why don't we treat them that way?
Single mother Dee St. Franc works two jobs and raises her 5-year old daughter. (Barbara Ries)

Throughout its history, America has continued to reinvent itself, each time producing a better society for more of us than the one that preceded it. Reconstruction improved on the pre-Civil War republic. The New Deal created a “new America” that was a great improvement on the Gilded Age. The civil rights movement generated legislation guaranteeing the equality promised in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

This constant reinvention is fueled by what I call “the idea that is America”—the principles of liberty, democracy, equality, justice, tolerance, humility, and faith on which our country was founded. As I’ve written, our history is a continual “process of trying to live up to our ideals, falling short, succeeding in some places, and trying again in others.”

The next period of American renewal cannot come fast enough. The gap between the richest and poorest Americans is growing wider. In fact, the top 10 percent took in more than half of all income in 2012, the highest share since the data series started.

Yet the United States has among the highest child poverty rates of any developed economy. We spend more but get less for our healthcare and education dollars than Canada, the United Kingdom, South Korea, and other nations. We are falling behind on these important measures of human progress in the world—but even more importantly, we are falling behind in terms of our ability to live up to our own values.

My personal vision is of a renewed America that cares—both about and for its people. This will require a shift. Right now, we are a nation that embraces and thrives on competition, from sports teams to small businesses to Silicon Valley. But in the competition paradigm, success is defined in terms of who wins, typically through a combination of talent, luck, and working harder and longer than anyone else. In this paradigm, if everyone is pursuing self-interest and striving to beat out competitors to get to the top, society as a whole will benefit.

I’m all for competition—in its place. But we have lost sight of the care paradigm, which is the necessary complement to competition. As Bill Gates put it, “the two great forces of human nature are self-interest and caring for others.”

The care paradigm starts from the premise that human beings cannot survive alone. Our progress as a species flows from our identity as social animals, connected to one another through ties of love, kinship, and clanship. Success is defined not as individual victory but as group progress, whether the group is family, clan, community, company, or any particular subdivision of society. In the care paradigm, the individual does not disappear; the progress of the group advances the individual as well. All members of the group also have the security of knowing that whether they are young or old, ill or weak, they will be cared for in their turn. Caring is part and parcel of building community.

An America that puts an equal emphasis on care and competition would be a very different place. We would invest in a national infrastructure of care in the same way that we invest in the infrastructure of capitalism. We would institute:

  • High-quality and affordable child care and elder care facilities
  • Higher wages and training for paid caregivers
  • Support structures to allow elders to live at home longer
  • Paid family and medical leave for women and men

Flexible work arrangements and career life cycles to give breadwinners who are also caregivers equal opportunity to advance over the course of their careers:

  • Financial and social support for single parents
  • Far greater social esteem for the “caring” professions

In short, we would build a social infrastructure that allows people to care for one another, in the same way we provide the basic physical infrastructure that allows them to compete.

Presented by

Anne-Marie Slaughter is the president of the New America Foundation and the Bert G. Kerstetter '66 University Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University. She was previously the director of policy planning for the U.S. State Department and the dean of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. More

From 2009-2011, Slaughter served as Director of Policy Planning for the United States Department of State, the first woman to hold that position. After leaving the State Department, she received the Secretary's Distinguished Service Award, the highest honor conferred by the State Department, for her work leading the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review. She also received a Meritorious Honor Award from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). 

Prior to her government service, Slaughter was the dean of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs from 2002-2009. She has written or edited six books, including A New World Order (2004) and The Idea That Is America: Keeping Faith with Our Values in a Dangerous World (2007). From 1994-2002, Slaughter was the J. Sinclair Armstrong Professor of International, Foreign, and Comparative Law and director of the International Legal Studies Program at Harvard Law School. She received a B.A. from Princeton, an M.Phil and D.Phil in international relations from Oxford, where she was a Daniel M. Sachs Scholar, and a J.D. from Harvard.

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